The Baroness and Brissago Islands: a love story

Antoinette de Saint Léger

She provided the inspiration for the botanic park on San Pancrazio island: Antoinette de Saint Léger, born in Russia on 20 June 1856 and daughter of Wilhelmine Bayer and (probably) Tsar Alexander II. She married twice before wedding her third husband in 1881, a wealthy Anglo-Irish Lord called Richard Fleming who effectively defined the rest of her life. The young couple moved to Lake Maggiore on 7 July 1885 and acquired – thanks to a large inheritance left by one of Fleming’s uncles, by virtue of which they also gained the titles Count of Doneraile and Baroness Saint Léger – the (as they were known then) Isole dei conigli, which had been abandoned for years and were sporadically covered with vegetation and the remains of an old convent.

The couple renovated the convent and set themselves the task of transforming the Isola Grande into a park, thus laying the foundations of what is now home to many rare subtropical species, thanks to the special microclimate on the Brissago Islands.

In 1897, the Baron left his wife on the islands and moved to Naples, but the Baroness, much like Arianna, chose to stay and dedicate her life to botany and culture. Her home became a centre of intense cultural activity with visits from painters, sculptors, musicians and famous writers (James Joyce is even thought to have found inspiration there). Following some failed investments, she was forced to leave the islands in 1927 when they were sold to the German Max Emden.

She died in Intragna in 1948, far from her home and beloved park, leaving her spiritual legacy on the island where, abandoned, she had recreated the atmosphere of the Mediterranean world. Her final resting place is on Isola Grande, as her remains were moved there in 1972.

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